Jewish groups, International Institute offer summer camp for immigrant families

Campers at the International Institute Day Camp played a game of duck-duck-goose on Monday morning. Photo: Eric Berger 

Eric Berger, Staff Writer

 A 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan stands outside in south St. Louis, listening as firefighters explain to him and other campers how their truck and equipment works. He wears a blue baseball hat emblazoned with the word “Hollywood.” It provides a little shade from the fierce sun.

Meanwhile, his mom, a 33-year-old Shiite Muslim, is taking English classes inside the International Institute of St. Louis while the camp is going on outside. She and her three children arrived in St. Louis about a year and a half ago. (The institute asked that campers’ names not be used.)

“My kids are happy because they used to just sit in the house but now they can come here and also I can go to classes,” she says via a translator on Monday morning.

And that’s one of the main points of the International Institute Day Camp: to provide refugees and immigrants who may feel overwhelmed with a few hours of childcare.

Parents can then “focus on learning English and becoming integrated as fast as possible so they can get on their feet and become independent,” said Alyssa Banford, senior engagement associate with Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, which helped to start the camp last year.

After President Donald Trump issued his first travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries shortly after taking office in 2016, the International Institute, a nonprofit aimed at helping immigrants assimilate in St. Louis, received a flood of inquiries from Jews wondering how they could help new arrivals.

The organization could not manage all those requests, so its staff reached out to the JCRC to help them find volunteer opportunities.

Meanwhile, the institute had experienced a drop in attendance for its adult English classes during summer breaks because parents did not have anyone to watch their children. Staff from the two organizations held a brainstorming session and came up with an idea: a summer camp for kids ages 5 to 13.

The free program, which takes place from 9 a.m. Monday to Thursday for one month, had 45 campers last summer and was limited to children who had been in the United States for less than six months. But the travel bans have meant that fewer immigrants are entering the United States, and thus the institute has fewer clients, Banford said. This year, organizers changed the rules so that the child of any parent who takes English classes at the institute is eligible.

Eighty-two campers are attending, a majority of which are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Banford said.

On June 13, Stan Shanker, a volunteer with Jewish Coalition for New Americans, a JCRC initiative, picked up a 32-year-old woman and her six children from       St. Louis Lambert International Airport. They were originally from Congo but had spent more than a decade in a refugee camp in Tanzania, he said, and spoke no English.

“When I first met them, I would go, ‘My name is Stan, your name is …. And they would go, ‘My name is Stan,’” Shanker says. Now they have at least a rudimentary understanding of the language.

More than 160 people volunteered to help at the camp, Banford said. Many belong to Congregation Shaare Emeth and Central Reform Congregation.

Shanker and others have also been spending about 10 to 15 hours each week with the family. They have shown themhow to use a modern bathroom because they did not previously have running water. They also have made sure they have adequate food and that it is stored properly.

During camp, the kids have participated in art classes with Marion Fredman, an artist who came from Berkeley, Calif. She heard about the camp from Shanker and his wife, Andy, and was “very taken” by “how they pulled this miraculous thing off.” So she came to St. Louis for a week of camp.

She has done collages with the campers, a medium in which “there is no right and no wrong, so there is no frustration.”

Other times, the campers have just played soccer, a game they were either already familiar with or one that didn’t require many instructions, says Shanker, who belongs to Shaare Emeth.

The Congolese family lives near the institute at 3401 Arsenal St. Shanker said the kids will point to the building and “indicate with gestures and smiles that they want to come back.”

The institute had a similar summer camp from 2005 to 2010 at the nearby Messiah Lutheran Church but discontinued the program after the building was sold and became a charter school, according to the organization.

The summer camp costs about $30,000 to organize and run. JCRC has received funding from various organizations in the Jewish community, including the Kranzberg Family Foundation and the Millstone Foundation.

“We are glad to have the resources that the St. Louis Jewish community brought to us to restart this summer program; it’s a great partnership,” said Gary Broome, director of communications and marketing for the International Institute.

Asked what he likes about camp, the 13 year old with the Hollywood cap says, “soccer.”

And “English classes.”